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TikTok Kids Are Being Exploited Online, but Change Is Coming

Lawmakers worldwide have been reacting at a glacial pace to protect child influencers from exploitation, but momentum is gathering.

Camera and ring light pointed at blurred image of boy
Phynart Studio/Getty

Goofing around in front of a camera while your parents offer encouraging words and smiles is something that pretty much all 21st century kids do. For most kids, this is just part of playtime. But for a small number of young influencers on Instagram or TikTok, this is work.

For these children, their entire lives actually become content – even the most intimate, least photogenic moments. It's become known as "commercial sharenting," said Leah Plunkett, author of the book Sharenthood and an assistant dean at Harvard Law School. 

"The distinguishing factor around the paid influencer community is the attempt to monetize these private, in some cases very intimate experiences," she said in an interview last month.

The number of child influencers has exploded in the last few years, driven by stars such as 10-year-old Ryan Kaji of Ryan's World, who boasts 33 million YouTube subscribers and his own line of toys. This represents a growing niche of social media that hits a specific audience, attracting big advertising dollars. Some parents, eager to get into this game, have brought their children along for the ride. 

But this new corner of social media comes with its own set of unique problems. Children are at risk of being overworked or being financially exploited by their parents. Then there are the more insidious risks to their safety, privacy and mental and physical wellbeing.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that there are few – if any – regulations protecting children appearing on social media, even though it is now a multimillion-dollar industry. That's despite many countries around the world, including the US, the UK and Australia, having longstanding laws in place to safeguard children working in the entertainment industry such as protecting their earnings and restricting working hours. 

Among academics, lawyers and experts specializing in influencer industries, child protection and child labor law, there's a sense that things cannot go on like this. Crystal Abidin, an academic at Curtin University who specializes in internet cultures, told a UK Parliamentary Committee examining the influencer industry this year that there is no age ceiling to being an influencer, "but there should be a floor." 

Privacy and consent

There are two ways children end up working in content creation jobs. The first, which more often happens among older children, is that they persuade their parents to let them make a YouTube channel. The second, and more frequent scenario, is that the parent makes content in which they feature their kids, showing the child alone or as part of a wider influencer family.

Some children of parents who are established social media influencers are born into the family business. They have had their births broadcast to the public and arrive in the world to find dedicated social media handles set up in their name. From the moment they first breathe, they are on display. In this environment, they have no choice or control over their own privacy.

Some parents of child influencers will say that they respect their children's privacy by asking for their consent to post content about them on the internet. In Abidin's early research into YouTube influencer families, she found parents preemptively using compensatory strategies to assure their viewers that their child views filming content as a reward rather than an obligation.

"On camera, they might say, so-and-so child is not here today, because it's punishment for them not to be able to participate – maybe because they didn't do their homework or they were disobedient," she said.

But critics of child influencer culture argue that it's hard to see how children not old enough to actively use social media or understand all the implications of being public facing in networked worlds could possibly give informed consent.

Sarah Adams, who runs the TikTok account @Mom.Uncharted, in which she dissects what she calls "generation shared," has called out influencers asking kids as young as 1 whether they agree to be filmed and put on the internet.

"It really bothers me that parents are justifying the choices they're making by saying their children who are very young can consent," she said last month in a video. "Them saying yes or no isn't the same as authorizing informed consent."

Plunkett is circumspect on this matter, pointing out that "it models for kids that their parents respect their existence and their privacy." But, she added, "as law nerds like me like to say, it is a necessary but not sufficient step in addressing the challenges around commercial sharenting."

Regulation that is both necessary and sufficient to prevent children being exploited through commercial sharenting is being discussed among lawyers and academics. Lawmakers, though, are struggling to catch up. 

Slow progress in the US and UK

When the UK Parliamentary Committee released a report on child influencers in May, the committee insisted that legislation is "urgently needed" and that not all parents are acting in the best interests of their children.

"The Committee heard concerns during the inquiry that some children in the influencer economy are being used by parents and family members seeking to capitalize on the lucrative market," said the report summary. "Posting content about children can also affect their privacy and bring security risks."

But Ed Magee, who is chair of the UK's National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment and who gave evidence during the committee inquiry, said he knows of no plans for the government to introduce rules in the near future. 

A spokesperson for the UK's Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport offered no specific timeline on a response. "We thank the committee for their work and are reviewing the findings," the spokesperson said. "The Government will respond in due course"

The US, which has a well-established child influencer industry, has been slow to react. So far the only visible intervention by lawmakers is a Washington state legislature bill to protect children working in social media. 

"Those children are generating interest in and revenue for the content, but receive no financial compensation for their participation," reads the introduction to the bill. "Unlike in child acting, these children are not playing a part, and lack legal protections."

The bill was introduced in January but remains at an early stage. If passed, it would only offer protection to children living within Washington state.

"At this point, we do not have any sort of comprehensive meaningful regulation or even definition that commercially sharented kids are actually engaging in child labor as child performance," said Plunkett. "It's wide open in the United States."

France as a model

France is the only country in the world with regulations in this area. Children there now have to register for a license, and just like those already working in acting and modeling, their earnings must be put into a dedicated bank account for them to access when they're 16.

It wasn't hard to persuade people to vote in favor of the legislation, Bruno Studer, the member of the National Assembly who drew up the bill, said in an interview. There was wide support for it among his fellow lawmakers when it passed in October 2020.

France's legislation is still too new to have been tested, but it is the only model to draw from. Studer said he is proud to have been the first to introduce it but is keen now to see how it is implemented and how other countries react. 

French member of parliament Bruno Studer

Bruno Studer, a member of the National Assembly in France, introduced the world's first legislation to regulate the work of child influencers.

Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

"From a legal perspective, this reform is unique in Europe and in the world, and other jurisdictions are taking it as an example," said Catalina Goanta, an associate law professor at Maastricht University. Its success, she added, "will very much depend on its implementation, as well as the measurement of its implementation."

The idea that parents can force children to work any number of hours, day or night, is of particular concern to those who work to regulate child labor. Magee pointed out that many of these children are likely to be home educated, meaning there's no one in their lives to call attention to the fact that they're being overworked.

"There's the potential for them just to sail under the radar," he said.

In recognition of the often ad hoc nature of making social media content, Magee said it wouldn't necessarily be realistic to simply extend existing regimented legislation applicable to child entertainers to encompass child influencers. 

"We might have to think creatively, and I think that there's no reason why we couldn't have a slightly different type of license just for them that would still enable them to be regulated," he said.

His other big concern is where the money goes. The biggest social media influencers rake in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. If you are a parent – and especially if you are a single parent – the opportunity to substantially boost your household income by posting videos of your child may be appealing.

It's common for parents of child influencers to use money earned through family or child influencer content to support the family, with no obligation to divert the revenue to a savings account. But Magee warns this could open parents up to being sued when children reach the age of 18 and wonder where all their money has gone.

The Studer bill, now taking effect in France, will mean that parents must apply for authorization before their child is allowed to appear in any monetized content and that money will be locked away in an account. 

"The line is very clear," said Studer. When a child starts making money or when they are being directed by an adult or told to say specific things to the camera, it stops being play or a hobby and starts being work.

Platforms, brands, parents: Who's in charge?

Other European nations hoping to implement similar legislation already have the power to help child influencers retroactively protect their own privacy. A major aspect of the Studer Bill is that it enshrines Europe's existing "right to be forgotten," which will force tech platforms to take down content at a child's request.

When it comes to regulation, tech platforms have largely taken the view that governments should make the rules and that they, the platforms, then enforce the rules. All the major social media sites have safety rules, but to what extent they should be responsible for the oversight of child influencers is not clearly defined.

UK-based charity the National Society for Protection of Cruelty to Children believes that part of the problem can be solved through broader legislation, such as the delayed Online Safety Bill. The NSPCC is urging the incoming prime minister of the UK, who will either be Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, to commit to delivering the legislation as a matter of priority. The bill would hold tech companies liable for failing to remove not only child sex abuse material from their platforms, but also material that was not illegal but still harmful.

This could extend to stolen images of children that didn't show sexual abuse but are used by predators on social networks for "breadcrumbing" – a way for predators  to identify one another and form networks to share more imagery and commit illegal acts.

"Images of child influencers are being widely shared online, including on fake profiles which can be used by offenders to form networks and organize child abuse elsewhere on the web," Richard Collard, policy and regulatory manager at the NSPCC, said in a statement. "It is incredibly distressing for parents and children to see this happening, but tech firms are failing to disrupt accounts and hashtags that act as a front for abusers and put other children at risk."

Even though tech platforms are the major pipeline of traffic and viewership for child influencers, it wouldn't necessarily be desirable for them to be the only word on child influencer safety, said Abidin. 

"Do we really want platforms to be the arbiter of morality and norms?" she said. These are for-profit US-based companies operating in a transnational environment after all, she added. "Platforms can do a lot, but it's also going to be a Pandora's box if we give them the permission to decide for us."

Instead, Abidin favors a quadruple-pronged approach in which platforms play a small role, alongside governments, parents and brands. Her inclusion of brands is notable – they are rarely spoken about in terms of their child safeguarding responsibilities and yet they bankroll the entire industry. 

So profitable is the nano- and micro-influencer industry that brands will encourage the production of user-generated content by parents as part of competitions or other initiatives.

"Some of these parents are being socialized to be aspiring influencers by these brands, even if they may not have started out having these intentions," she said. 

Parents with little knowledge of the industry find themselves suddenly negotiating brand deals on behalf of their child. "We need to accept that even the best, most well-meaning, most loving parents may not be the most appropriate managers for their child influencers," she said.

Most of the parents Abidin has spoken to as part of her research have been influencers themselves and are familiar with the intricacies of the business. As a result, they are better at advocating for their children. They can build clauses in contracts that mean if their children are tired or sick, they don't have to work that day. They can demand final approval over how brands want to use their image.

Plunkett is hopeful that if the right regulation is put in place – not necessarily just by governments, but by the private sector too – it might be possible there could be better safeguarded digital marketplaces for sharing good content featuring children. There could even be untold value to a child if they're a prodigious ballerina or scientist and they're able to share their talent with the world, she added.

"We don't want to stifle the amazing creativity and generativity of networked worlds," she said. "But when it comes specifically right now to sharing our children's private and even intimate moments, those worlds are really, really unsafe and unstable."

In light of this and the lack of regulations anytime soon, the onus will remain on parents to make the best choices for their child. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, said Abidin.

"Perhaps the more useful conversation to have is, how do we educate these parents and give them resources to make the best decisions, rather than focus on what I view as more futile, which is trying to stop this phenomenon altogether."